Air Time

Posted on Jul 1, 2010 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

EAA President and CEO Tom Poberezny

Harrison Ford, Chuck Yeager, Tom Poberezny: Two of these, you might say, match the part of a death-defying daredevil.

Poberezny’s soft-spoken voice and reserved manner just don’t fit the stereotype most people conjure up when they imagine a stunt pilot pushing an airplane to that fine point between breathtaking trick and deadly crash. Yet, the Experimental Aircraft Association Chairman and President did exactly that for more than 25 years, many of them as a member of the Eagles Aerobatic Team.

His plane hangs in the EAA Museum in Oshkosh.

Many of those who know Poberezny say aerobatic flying appeals to the Northwestern University-educated engineer and his ability to push himself to the limits while remaining safe.

That ability has helped him outside the cockpit as well. Combined with boundless energy and a clear vision, he has built on the legacy established by his father, EAA founder Paul Poberezny, and combined the words EAA, AirVenture and Oshkosh into a brand that is known and respected worldwide.

“We are compared to the top global events around the world,” Poberezny says. “It’s not just in terms of importance, but also in terms of our style. We’ve built a brand that permeates around the globe.”

Pilots of experimental aircraft say the EAA is their mecca.

“We love airplanes. It’s a natural to come to Oshkosh, says James Pitman of Johannesburg, South Africa, who flew to AirVenture in 2009 in a D6 Sling he and partner Mike Blyth designed and built for the trip.

The worldwide appeal shines brightest during late July and early August, when EAA AirVenture Oshkosh hosts planes, pilots and aviation enthusiasts from around the globe on the grounds of Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh. Visitors from more than 75 countries attended the 2009 annual convention, bringing more than 10,000 airplanes with them, according to a post-convention summary prepared by EAA.

Cool planes and cool people cover the grounds during the convention. The Concorde was a regular visitor, as are some of the more unique military planes like the Harrier or Stealth Fighter. World War II Ace Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, often regales the crowd with stories of his days as a test pilot.

Some visitors are more discreet. If you scan the crowd carefully enough and catch a break, you might see Harrison Ford or John Travolta. Huge aviation fans, they regularly make visits to AirVenture to keep up on the latest developments in aviation.

“The Oshkosh people who come here and enjoy the passion that happens every year here – you’re the ones that are going to help us grow this industry,” Burt Rutan, famous for his design of the record-breaking Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling, told a crowd gathered at AirVenture last year.

An economic impact study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh estimated the convention pumps nearly $110 million into the regional economy.

Attendance is estimated at more than 600,000, computed by multiplying the number of tickets sold times the number of estimated daily visits by each ticket holder. The EAA estimates the actual number of individuals who attend AirVenture is most likely between 200,000 and 300,000 – which still makes AirVenture the largest civilian air show in the country.

Launch of a dream

The aviation juggernaut that is EAA and AirVenture had humble beginnings in January of 1953 when Paul Poberezny, Tom’s father and an Air Force test pilot, founded the EAA with a group of enthusiasts who had been meeting at his home. The fly-in convention now known as

AirVenture got its start in September of that year at Curtis-Wright Airport in Milwaukee, now known as Timmerman field, as part of the struggling Milwaukee Air Pageant.

As the Air Pageant foundered and eventually faded from the scene, AirVenture and EAA kept growing. By 1959, AirVenture had outgrown Curtis-Wright Field and established a new home base in Rockford, Ill. By 1970, the convention had outstripped the capacity at Rockford and moved to Oshkosh. The headquarters of EAA, the museum and ancillary services eventually followed suit.

While the convention and the organization continued to grow, however, it was not as organized or as effective as it could be to serve its core constituency, says Tom Poberezny, who was serving as both convention chairman and president of EAA.

“We were becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none,” he says. “We had to refocus on our key assets and we became more integrated.”

A lot of the improvement came from concentrating on key relationships with both members and the EAA’s business partners. They decided to integrate staff, which had been scattered among operations ranging from the museum to magazine publishing. They launched more targeted services and spun off or discontinued extraneous efforts.

“We had to find a way to bring more value,” Poberezny says. “We are looking for partners who can increase the value, not just be names on the wall.”

Ford Motor Co., Shell Oil and ScottsMiracle-Gro have all become major corporate players in the convention, bringing major sponsorships as well as many of the company’s decision makers to Oshkosh each summer.

The results of the last decade have been impressive. The convention has continued to report audiences above the half-million mark. The economic impact report by UW-Oshkosh cites a direct impact of $84 million for the regional economy, with another $26 million from the multiplier or “ripple” effect, according to the 2008 study. The study estimates that 1,700 jobs are supported by the event.

Another key finding is where that money comes from. The study found that 73 percent of the visitors to AirVenture come from outside Wisconsin; “the economic impact is overwhelmingly new money,” the study reports.

EAA and AirVenture’s lease with Winnebago County for the use of Wittman Regional Airport has been criticized by some who question if the county is getting maximum value from the agreement. Regional business leaders wonder: Can we get a greater economic bang than just one week? If the airport is underutilized, could aviation and AirVenture related businesses be lured to set up shop there?

Some think such opportunities do exist.

“There are a lot of decision makers that come here,” says Tony Palmeri, a member of the Oshkosh Common Council and UW-Oshkosh professor who has been outspoken about issues involving AirVenture. “There probably needs to be some better coordination between Oshkosh, the county and the chambers of commerce.”

Maximizing the entity

Poberezny is quick to point out that while the convention is perhaps the most visible economic activity, there is plenty going on year-round. While it is a not-for-profit organization, EAA has a payroll of more than 200, and is home to a top-notch museum that draws people year-round.
Additionally, EAA’s convention facilities are considered some of the best in the area and many groups and conventions use the facilities throughout the year.

Sure, there are other opportunities that exist, but Poberezny is not so sure that it is EAA’s role to facilitate any kind of economic development effort. Its job is to serve its members, though he says the organization would certainly be willing to help local business and community leaders.
The challenge is to find and exploit the connections that are being made through EAA and AirVenture.

“We know that a lot of business gets done,” says Al Hartman, former provost at UW-Oshkosh who is working on a project to identify businesses and manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin that could – or already do – supply materials or expertise to the aviation industry. “We have not found a way to participate in that.”

One cautionary note: the effort is probably wasted if folks think it is going to lead to the movement or opening of a large aircraft manufacturer. Those companies are located in places like Wichita, Kan., for many factors, including better weather for testing aircraft.

That’s not to say it’s not possible – Sonex Aircraft, an Oshkosh-based designer and manufacturer of experimental aircraft kits, may be the exception to the rule. Poberezny says there may be other aviation-related business opportunities if community leaders can find a way to interact with the decision makers who attend AirVenture.

It’s a challenge John Casper has faced for many years during his tenure as president and chief executive officer of the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. The efforts have taken many forms, from full-blown hospitality events to passive displays. None have had the large-scale impact most people would like to see, he says, adding it does not mean they were not successful.
“We did the big hospitality event for several years and we never really hit on the right thing,” Casper says. “While we never connected, people did enjoy them.”

One of the offshoots of those earlier hospitality events was the Mayor’s Breakfast during EAA, which is a morning social event that markets the city and puts those attending the convention in touch with the city’s community and business leaders.

The challenge, Casper says, is finding a way to access the folks who are attending AirVenture without imposing on them. Many are there to enjoy the airplanes and the convention, not to do deals.

“Now we use EAA and AirVenture to entertain folks who we are working with as a way to close the deal,” he says. “It’s a great way to showcase the quality of life here and we do it every year.”

Casper says business and community leaders may have to focus more on small deals such as connecting someone who has a need with a local manufacturer who can fill it.

Great minds thinking alike

In a way, it’s very similar to the approach that EAA itself took a decade ago when it decided to revamp its own approach to the convention and the way it does business: relationship building.

One group trying to do that is AeroInnovate, a forum aimed at connecting aerospace entrepreneurs and investors using AirVenture as a backdrop. Organizers are optimistic they can play the role of connection maker.
“It really is about relationship building,” says Meridith Jaeger, co-director of AeroInnovate. “There are a lot of cool things and synergies there.”

What’s missing is a catalyst to attract aviation companies to the area, says Jeremy Monet, CEO of Sonex Aircraft. As Monet sees it, there is not a program or an incentive that would make a move to Oshkosh or Wisconsin attractive for those companies.

“If we are going to go after aviation, we need to get them early in the process,” says Monet, who is encouraged by AeroInnovate’s concept.

AeroInnovate held three sessions aimed at innovators on the grounds of AirVenture during the 2009 convention, including a panel on raising financing and the top mistakes entrepreneurs make when starting a business. Those were followed by a pitch-and-mingle session, where seven entrepreneurs had a chance to pitch their ideas to an audience that included potential investors. Jaeger says folks were talking and exchanging information long after the session formally ended.

The results are encouraging. At least one start-up is considering building a plant in Oshkosh. The Minnesota Department of Transportation contacted one of the presenters about licensing the technology and at least three of the attendees found new advisers to add to their board of advisers, Jaeger says.

Encouraged, a similar event is planned for July 27 at this year’s convention. Jaeger says while there is a lot of expertise at the convention associated with building airplanes, from manufacturing to avionics to composite materials, the trick is getting those folks to talk with the other folks who might be investors or decision makers.

“The feedback we have gotten is that ‘we are all out here but we don’t know we have similar interests,’” Jaeger says. “There is no focus on the innovator who wants to take their idea and build a business out of it.”

The supply chain effort is aimed at improving the knowledge of area manufacturers who might also be able to contribute. It is a point of pride for Monet and Sonex that the majority of their supply chain is based in Wisconsin and the New North.

Hartman says folks might be surprised to find out what’s already going on. Area companies such as Plexus are not considered aviation companies, but many of their electronic components can be found on commercial aircraft. Others, such DeCrane Aerospace in Peshtigo, specialize in interiors for the private jet market.

“We don’t necessarily market that well enough,” Hartman says. “We are at an embryonic stage.”

The aviation supply chain could be developed similar to Wind Works, the supply chain directory New North, Inc. put together to highlight the companies already in the area that could supply wind energy parts and expertise.

“We have manufacturers in the area who make composite materials, or control panels or who work in nano-technology,” says Jerry Murphy, New North’s executive director. “We need to know what’s in the neighborhood and then market it.”

Again, it comes down to identifying the possibilities, and making the connections, he says.
Perhaps that will be Poberezny’s next mission.

In 2009, Poberezny announced he would soon be stepping down from his role as president of EAA. The board of directors is currently conducting a worldwide search for potential successors.

Poberezny says he plans to remain active in an important role for the organization: building and maintaining relationships.

“I’ve taken things about as far as I can go operationally,” Poberezny says. “I want to work on and reinforce the relationships that have value.